what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, August 31, 2020

Links I liked

It’s been more than 2 months since the last weekly “Links I liked” round-up of interesting hyperlinks – for which my apologies. There’s no excuse – they’re easy to do and I suspect the short notes are a welcome relief for many of you from the usual long post on a post of a recondite theme……

I had been saving The Post-Pandemic Mind for a special Covid roundup but got distracted. The article makes the point that the debate already underway about the long-term effects of the health-and-economic crisis -

can be grouped as right-leaning, anywhere-leaning, and left-leaning. To wit:
- a conservative and nationalist interpretation - which challenges globalisation and reinserts state sovereign rights
- an industrial interpretation, relating to the way digital culture has boomed during the pandemic
- and a social-democratic interpretation which could give the state and/or mutuality a more significant role

In the early days of the pandemic, certainly, it seemed that most so-called forecasts of the lasting impact were little more than wishful thinking sustaining the prevailing world-view of the commentators. We need a rather more hard-headed approach  

Michael Roberts is my favourite economic blogger. Not only are his expositions so clear verbally but his visuals are a real object lesson. And the speed with which he can put material together is quite frightening – the Japanese PM had no sooner indicated that illness was forcing him to resign than this post about Abenomics appeared in my mail.  

Visual Capitalist had a useful visual on the 700 year decline of interest rates

Bill Nighy and Annette Bening are two of my favourite actors whom I had never dared hope to see together and I am therefore very much looking forward to viewing the Hope Gap film in which they star.

Martin Hagglund seems to be an up-and-coming philosopher by origin Swedish whose This Life – why mortality makes us free (2019) seems to be making waves. The extensive google excerpt certainly indicates it’s elegantly written - although it seems so far to be making the fairly obvious point that our limited time on earth should make us value more our projects and relationships – compared with the eternal boredom that awaits the believer……I’m not a fan of the Dawkins/Hitchens anti-God screeds – although 3 new Chris Hitchens books await me (on Orwell; Letters to a Contrarian Friend; and "And Yet", his final volume of collected essays )

Having vicerated a Quillette article recently, I’m hoping that Post post-modernism on the left will be less offensive

The increasingly impressive Boston Review reviews a clutch of books on White Liberalism – which reminds me that I need to get back into Eric Kaufman’s “Whiteshift – populism, immigration and the future of white majorities”. Also an excerpt from one of the chapters

Finally, I liked this story of an American teenager who has been revealed as the author of more than half of the Wikipedia entries on the Scots language.
If you don’t know what that is – here’s a nice presentation of the Scots language

Some advice for social activists

Street protests have been taking place in Sofia for the past two months - directed  against the country's systemic corruption and, specifically, against Prime Minister Borisov (who used to be the bodyguard of first the ex-dictator Zhivkov and then PM King Simeon II) and the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev whose recent raid on the offices of popular President Radev has raised big questions. 
Unlike previous street protests in Sofia, this one has attracted wider support – and also unlike earlier protests, inspired by the apparent success of Romania’s Anti-Corruption Agency, this one is targeting the Chief Prosecutor.
I hope to be writing an article shortly about such protests in both Bulgaria and Romania and want therefore simply to update my thoughts on such street movements.

Both Extinction Rebellion and Covid 19 suggest that there can be no return to normality – and the Sofia protestors might be well advised to widen the scope of their agenda. After all, smaller countries generally seem better able to “do” change viz Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Singapore, Estomia, Slovenia – particularly when they  have women at their helm!
I have a theory of change which emphasises the individual, moral responsibility as well as the dynamic of the crowd

“Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity”.

And the preparation is about analysis, mobilisation and integrity.
·         It is about us caring enough about our organisation and society to speak out about the need for change.
·         It is about taking the trouble to think and read about ways to improve things – and
·         To help create and run networks of such change
·         which mobilise social forces
·         And it is about establishing a personal reputation for probity and good judgement 
·         that people will follow your lead when that window of opportunity arises”.

I appreciate that this may come across as rather elitist, if not patronising, but the process it describes comes from both experience and a careful review of the key books of the past 70 years…..
I am therefore taking this opportunity to update a previous list I did all of two years ago. The selection is a very personal one and ranges from the passionate to the technical – with a smattering of books that are more descriptive…..

Temperamentally I go (at least these days) for the more analytical (and generic) works and the development literature is therefore probably a bit overrepresented (and the feminist underrepresented).
Readers should also be aware that I was a strong community activist in my early days….
A lot of the titles can be read in full. Strange that none of the books is written by a political scientist (with the possible exception of Gene Sharp). Machiavelli would be turning in his grave

Key Books for “social change” activists


Focus – and readership


"HYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"EuropeHYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"'HYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"s Burden - promoting good governance across. bordersHYPERLINK "https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Burden-Promoting-Governance-Borders/dp/1108459668/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=good+governance,+alina-mungiu-pippidi&qid=1597848018&s=books&sr=1-2"" Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (2019)


change agents


Looks to be a very thoughtful analysis of the lessons to be drawn from 2 decades of anti-corruption efforts in Europe

How to Resist; turn protest into power; Matt Bolton (2017)

Trade unionists, activists

An overdue update, for British market, of Saul Alinsky’s “Reveille for Radicals” (see last entry)


Can we know better? Reflections for Development; Robert Chambers (2017)

Experienced development activists

A rare book of wisdom from the 88-year-old guru of development studies

How Change Happens Duncan Green (2016)

Community groups and officials

Great overview – if from only a development experience perspective

A Guide to Change and Change Management for Rule of Law Practitioners (2015)

For change agents in “Transition countries”

Very rare attempt to bring the insights of change management to those trying to build “rule of law” in transition and developing countries

The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement; David Graeber (2014)

Activists, historians

One of the founders of Occupy Wall St who happens to be an anarchist and anthropologist recounts the fascinating story of the movement

Occupy Theory; Michael Albert (2012)


the first volume of a 3 vol series written to mark the Occupy movement, the others being Occupy Vision and Occupy Strategy

People, Politics and Change - building communications strategy for governance reform (World Bank 2011)

Change agents in government

One of the best – straddling the various worlds of action, academia and officialdom – with the focus on fashioning an appropriate message and constituency for change

Finding Frames – new ways to engage the UK public in global poverty (2011)


A great example of frame analysis – showing the importance of trying to identify the link between social values and politics

Indignez-vous; Stephane Hessel (2010)

Social justice campaigners

Inspiring pamphlet from the Frenchman whose whole life has been an inspiration to us all

Common Case – the case for working with our cultural values (2010)

Activists for global concerns

One of the most important 100 pages any social activist could read….it’s simply tragic that 8 years later, it would now be seen as revolutionary

Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions – citizens, stakeholders and Voice (World Bank 2008)

Change agents in government

A decade on, it’s still offers one of the clearest frameworks for making government systems work for people

Wicked Problems and clumsy solutions – the role of leadership; Keith Grint (2008)


A must-read analysis which introduced many people to frame analysis - helps us adopt a more holistic approach

Live Working, Die Fighting – how the working class went global; Paul Mason (2007)

trade unionists

A story that needed telling in a media and political world which is now so hostile to working people organising to improve their lot

Blessed Unrest – how the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming; Paul Hawken (2007)

Extinction activists

reviewed here.


This is the field which has probably seen the most action – but the least results!

Challenging Authority – how ordinary people change America; Frances Piven (2006)


Click the title and you get the full book

Change the World; Robert Quinn (2000)


A tragically neglected book

From Dictatorship to Democracy – a conceptual framework for liberation; Gene Sharp (1993)

Regime change

The handbook for a lot of soi-disant revolutionaries….its provenance is a bit suspect….

Putting the Last First; Robert Chambers (1983)


A morally powerful book which challenged (to little avail) the “imperialist” assumptions of most technical assistance programmes

Rules for Radicals; Saul Alinsky (1971)

Community activists

THE handbook for generations of activists…

the follow-up apparently to Reveille for Radicals which he published in 1946!

A website simply called Corporations did give a useful post on How to Overthrow Corporate Rule – in 5 Steps which reminded me of a very useful four pages of tactical advice given in a 1990s book on the New Zealand experience with neo-liberal programmes 
For more individual efforts we have the inspiring example of 93 year-old Stephane Hessel who gave us Indignez-Vous and died (in 2013) still articulating his vision of a better world. Or the Dutch activist Joost van Steenis. Both give clear analysis and clarion calls (I particularly liked van Steenis' 21 statements) – but are light on bookish references or recognition of other relevant movements.

But I hadn’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs who died while still campaigning in America just 3 months short of her 100th birthday. A journal devoted to art and politics called Guernica has a fascinating interview with this Chinese-American philosopher who refused to stand still for nearly a century, mobilizing alongside various freedom struggles from civil rights to climate change campaigns. The opening chapter of her book – The next American Revolution; sustainable activism for the 21st Century (2011) - has echoes, for me, of Robert Quinn’s hugely underrated Change the World

Most of us operate with an “instrumental” or “agency” view of social change. We assume that “a” causes “z” and that socio-economic ills can therefore be dealt with by specific measures. But a couple of decades ago, an approach – variously called “chaos” or “complexity” theory – started to undermine such assumptions. Writers such as Margaret Wheatley and Quinn have shown the implications for management practice - but few activists seem to have understood the implications.

Lee Boggs puts it as follows

I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking.

But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work. We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Taking no prisoners - what passes for American discourse

We are indeed a pathetic species - congregating apparently in "bubbles" and "echo chambers" of like-minded groups. I have a "bolshie" side to me - expressed in rather juvenile gestures like refusing in the 1950s to stand for the national anthem played then in cinemas (!) - or to wear what became in the late 80s the obligatory poppy around the Armistice celebrations....
My contrarian gesture these days is to expose myself to a few journals which express a very different world-view from that of my normal reading. I realise that my recent list of preferred journals runs the risk of my being "pigeon-holed" - although I would readily agree with any accusations of being "humanist" or "sceptical". Such epithets, hopefully, indicate an openness of mind - a willingness to take seriously an alternative view
The careful reader will notice a few surprises amongst the typical favourites of a Guardian reader viz "Spiked", "The Critic" and "Quillette" - the first and last being libertarian and the middle a new journal which expresses a certain spirit of old-fashioned English nationalism.......I read these to test my own views - not for nothing do I like the phrase mugwump

And it was while reading the latest version of Quillette that I encountered "The Challenge of Marxism" which I want to explore as an example of the "take no prisoners" style which seems to have become modern American discourse
A mere 30 years later, Marxism is back, and making an astonishingly successful bid to seize control of the most important American media companies, universities and schools, major corporations and philanthropic organizations, and even the courts, the government bureaucracy, and some churches.
As American cities succumb to rioting, arson, and looting, it appears as though the liberal custodians of many of these institutions—from the New York Times to Princeton University—have despaired of regaining control of them, and are instead adopting a policy of accommodation. That is, they are attempting to appease their Marxist employees by giving in to some of their demands in the hope of not being swept away entirely.
Meanwhile, others will continue to work in the mainstream media, universities, tech companies, philanthropies, and government bureaucracy, learning to keep their liberalism to themselves and to let their colleagues believe that they too are Marxists—just as many conservatives learned long ago how to keep their conservatism to themselves and let their colleagues believe they are liberals. This is the new reality that is emerging.
There is blood in the water and the new Marxists will not rest content with their recent victories. In America, they will press their advantage and try to seize the Democratic Party. They will seek to reduce the Republican Party to a weak imitation of their own new ideology, or to ban it outright as a racist organization. And in other democratic countries, they will attempt to imitate their successes in America. No free nation will be spared this trial. So let us not avert our eyes and tell ourselves that this curse isn’t coming for us. Because it is coming for us.
The article is written by one Yoram Hazony who is apparently Director of the Herzl Institute of Jerusalem - and goes on to make the point that Marx's basic insight was the recognition that the world was divided between those with wealth and power and those without; and that there would be conflict between the two.
He then, astonishingly, concedes that Marx was correct in this insight - as well as in his further argument that liberalism is a rationalisation of the privileged life led by the upper class.....
But the article insists relentlessly on lumping under the label of "Marxists" all who object to the damage done to public life by the worship of greed - and who refuse to accept that the market can do no wrong.

I, for example, have never called myself a Marxist - although I certainly recognise (as do all serious  social scientists) that he was one of the 19th century's greatest thinkers. I have seen myself variously as a Social Democrat or, occasionally, as an ecologist

If these is any sense to this article, it seems to be a manichean call to arms to all those who consider themselves privileged - for them to understand that any thought of coalition with other forces is nothing short of treachery.

A paean of praise (almost 2000 comments - mostly positive) has greeted the article in the week since it's publication) I thought it needed at least one note of dissent and made the following comment .
I am staggered that Quillette considers such a Manichean view of the world is worthy of inclusion in the journal. It is also “all over the place” starting with a purported summary of 2 arguments of the German gentleman which are then quickly conceded - followed by a further concession that liberals have never dealt satisfactorily with the argument that liberalism is a rationalisation of privilege
I am a British social democrat who has never called myself a Marxist - but this author dares to call me - and the millions of others who take issue with the greed ideology - a Marxist.This tactic is one of the most divisive I have come across.- with the bottom line that you are either for privilege or against us. No coalitions or prisoners!!
What a dreadful creed!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Fiddling while Rome is Burning

Bear with me while I try to get to the heart of my unease with the quality of the non-fiction writing with which we are flooded every day - week in and week out.
I've previously suggested that a common fault of the books which should be helping us understand the nature of the problems which confront us - be it globalisation, corruption, unemployment, migration, populism or identity - is partiality, bad-writing or over-specialisation.

The discipline of Economics has rightly taken a drubbing since 2008 - with the world waking up at last to the inanity of the assumptions it brings to to the task of anticipating future events.
But, despite this, economists remain, after epidimiologists, the first "go-to experts" for the media.  So their poisonous message continues to seep into our minds

We expect political scientists, by virtue simply of the first word in their title, to be different. But they have, in the past half-century, allowed the second word to dominate their thinking. They have "penis-envy"; and have tended as a result to produce boring quantitative stuff - with a few honourable exceptions noted below

Intellectuals of the mid-century - such as JK Galbraith, Raymond Aron and Tony Crosland - could communicate about Big Issues. Three features in particular stood out in their writing -
- They had read widely - not just in the narrow sub-disciplines of today's academia;
- had broad experience of life - beyond the ivory tower
- they were not afraid to demonstrate their moral principles

We are, these days in desperate need of their ilk. I'm hard pressed to find books which contain these qualities. Too many EITHER set up simplified goodies and baddies OR confuse us with the over-complexity of their analyses
Two authors who have the necessary breadth are Romania's Alina Mungiu-Pippidi who, since 2007, has been Professor of Democratic Studies at the prestigious Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and an activist in her home country....Graduating originally in medicine, she has a doctorate in social psychology and has even written plays. Not surprisingly corruption has been a central focus of her work;  and her latest book is a great read - Europe's Burden - promoting good governance across borders (2020) which I hope to be studying next week....The excerpts which Amazon offers demonstrate a strong sense of country histories which are generally missing in most technocratic works.

Graham P Maxton was, until 2018, Secretary of The Club of Rome and I came across his superbly-written little book Change - why we need a radical turnaround (2018) earlier in the year. This is one of the best statements I know of about global warming and why we need urgent change
In 2011 he produced the equally readable "The End of Progress - how modern economics has failed us" . There is an interview here; and a presentation here

Some Critiques of social and political science relevance
- Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter (2001),
- Stephen Toulmin’s Return to Reason (2003),
- Sanford Schram and Brian Caterino’s Making Political Science Matter (2006) and
- Gerry Stoker and B, Guy Peters The Relevance of Political Science (2013)  

Saturday, August 22, 2020


Expectations are at the root of unhappiness
Zen Buddhists have it right
My mother's commonplace book of sayings
contained a prayer
attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr
"God grant me
the strength to change 
what needs to be changed
the serenity to accept 
what cannot be changed and
the wisdom to know the difference" 
even the economists understand.
with their demand and supply curves,
that it's better to reduce demand!
For Keynes, expectations were...
too "exuberant" 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Le Trahison des Clercs?

This phrase - the title of a famous little French book which was published in 1927 - still reverbates almost a hundred years on. "Clercs" can be translated literally as "scribblers" with the english title "Betrayal of the Intellectuals" giving its true sense. Its basic argument was that the increasing nationalist tone of French intellectuals was a betrayal of the Enlightenment project.
This polemical essay argued that European intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century had often lost the ability to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism. Benda reserved his harshest criticisms for his fellow Frenchmen Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès. Benda defended the measured and dispassionate outlook of classical civilization, and the internationalism of traditional Christianity.Human aspirations, specifically after power, would become the sole end of society.
French intellectuals have, of course, been a more numerous and vociferous bunch than their anglo-saxon counterparts - with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, William James and Walter Lippmann being amongst the few of the latter at the time. And the French tradition of challenge to power is clearly longer and stronger - stretching  recently from Zola's famous J'Accuse campaign through the French resistance to American culture and La Pensee Unique to Stephane Hessel's Indignez-Vous .

But the massive academic expansion of the past 50 years means that academics and journalists are so numerous these days that we tend to trip over them as they vie for our attention.  The question I want to pursue here is whether this new breed doesn't also deserve to be accused of a massive betrayal of public trust - this time by virtue not of political passion or ideology but of its absence!!

The last post concluded with a suggestion that most of the products of political and social science is of little use to us as citizens.  A spate of books in the past decade about populism and democracy such as Runciman's "How Democracy Ends?" (2018) about which I wrote very positively earlier this year  ; and Yascha Mounk's "The People v Democracy – why our freedom is in danger and how to save it"  (2018) would suggest I may have been a tad critical.  And the list of books at the end of the next post seems to indicate that there has been a reasonably healthy ongoing debate about the reinvigoration of the discipline and a more explicit connection between political science and contemporary politics and public debate.

But the social sciences have, in the past half-century of explosive university expansion , been thoroughly professionalised - with a concomitant increase in their aspirations to scientism. Matt Flinders has a useful discussion about this in his article "The Tyranny of Relevance and the act of translation" which argues that academics do feel incrrasingly under pressure to justify their existence and relevance to those in power - both in the private and public sectors. Indeed such links have attracted occasional criticism - particularly in such sectors as armaments and energy
But what about their sense of duty to the wider public of citizens? How many academics take the trouble to try to communicate with the wider public on issues of public concern? 

Younger academics certainly cannot afford to engage in anything that might smack of popularisation - let alone of politics. Which leaves it up to their older colleagues with tenure to engage in the important but neglected task of communicating with the wider public.
Although there is certainly a welcome increase of popular writing by academics, it is still a tiny percentage of the millions of such staff - and the motives in all too many cases have more to do with reputation than with edification! And consist too often of rehashed dissertations. The thousands of titles on capitalism are a good example - full, as Shakespeare so nicely puts it, "of sound and fury" but offering little to the wider public that bis actionable......
Chomsky is perhaps the most famous of the intellectuals prepared to comment on worldly affairs and demonstrates the risks involved - of being both pigeon-holed and vilified. Here is one of Chomsky's classic statement on the role of the public intellectual - from 1967!

The post is proving more complicated than I had realised - so will be continued........

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Why is Political Science so.....irrelevant?

The last 5 posts were sparked off by some articles in "The Political Quarterly" conducting a preliminary post-mortem on government performance during the Covid pandemic - and what that said about the strength (and weaknesses) of the UK, Swedish and New Zealand government systems and/or leadership. The posts wandered a bit - covering such issues as
- the role and scope of individual action
- and "character",
- the role of the state,
- intellectual fashions,
- blunders in government and
- the meaning of the word "governance".
I thought therefore it would be useful to try to tie things together more coherently in this post

British and American political scientists have had from the 1970s a consistent (if intermittent) interest in the issue of what they have variously labelled as government "overload", "disasters" or "blunders" - as you will see from the long bibliography of the Comparing Blunders in government (2016) article

To the extent that they have had anything to say about government per se, it has generally been to suggest that globalisation and other supranational forces have been undermining the significance of that particular system of ultimate authority. 
American political scientists, notoriously, have in recent decades been plagued by a form of penis-envy - namely "economist envy" and have become fixated on quantitative/statistical treatment (of elections etc).

British political science may like to think it's different but a cursory look at any of the flagship political science journals would demonstrate that they don't deal with "big" or important political issues. Political scientists have, for example, been generally missing from discussions about the location of power in the UK. Indeed this has been the subject of some provocative addresses in recent years eg Matt Flinder's "The Future of Political Science" (2016)
And just look at the titles of some of the books in the reading list at the end.... 
This article "Covid19 and the policy sciences" by well-known policy analysts Paul Cairney, Diana Stone et al gives a good sense of how various strands in that related field are dealing with the issue

But it's taken a Professor of Military Strategy to produce the first definitive study (50pp) of the performance of the British Government during the initial 4 months of the pandemic - Strategy for a Pandemic - the UK and Covid19  by Lawrence Freedman
And it takes a rare and brave soul to offer anything about government strategy-making which might be found useful by practitioners - but one of those rarities is Creating Public Value in Practice – advancing the common good in a ….noone in charge world ; ed J Bryson et al (2015),  an update of their fantastic book for 20 years earlier Leadership for the Common Good which can be accessed in full by clicking the title.
Such books tend to be written by those with detailed experience of the management of government policies and practice who will tend to come from the less-highly regarded field of public administration and.or management.

And it is one such author's book which has just come to my attention "Strategies for Governing - reinventing public administration for a dangerous century"  (2019)
In the United States, the field of public administration was launched almost a century ago by people with bold aspirations. They were not interested only in the efficiency of government offices; they wanted a thorough overhaul of the creaking American state so that it could manage the pressures of modern-day life.
Unfortunately, this expansive view of the field’s purpose has been lost. Over the last four decades in particular, the focus within the field has been mainly on smaller problems of management within the public sector. This narrowing of focus might have made sense in the United States and a few other advanced democracies in the waning decades of the twentieth century, but it does not make sense today.
As we shall see, many people have recently protested this shrinking of ambitions.
It is time for a change of direction. We need to recover an expansive view of the field, and I propose a way to do so. We must recover the capacity to talk about the fundamentals of government, because the fundamentals matter immensely.
Right now, there are billions of people on this planet who suffer terribly because governments cannot perform basic functions properly. People live in fear because governments cannot protect their homes from war and crime. They live in poverty because governments cannot create the conditions for trade and commerce to thrive. They live in pain because governments cannot stop the spread of disease. And they live in ignorance because governments do not provide opportunities for education. The expectations that we hold of our leaders can be stated simply: They should protect us from foreign enemies, maintain internal order, increase prosperity, improve well-being, and provide justice.
Even in the twenty-first century, most governments on this planet fail to do this.
I've ordered the book and will let you know whether it lives up to expectations

Conclusion; I had assumed that this post would wrap up the mini-series of the past week but realise that it does not even begin to answer the question of why political science is so irrelevant.....

Studies Critical of Political Science  
Defending Politics - Democracy in the 21st Century; Matt Flinders (2012)
The Political Imagination – a rallying call to university professors of politics (Flinders 2014)
Bridging the Relevance Gap ; Matthew Wood (2014)
Human Wellbeing and the lost relevance of political science ; Bo Rothstein (2014)
The relevance of political science ; Stoker, Pierre and Peters (2015)
Why Politics Matters – making democracy work; Gerry Stoker  (2004; 2016)
Why We Hate Politics ; Colin Hay (2007)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

"Governance" as New Kids on the Block

New words do not always indicate a new condition. One of my favourite cartoons is the Jules Feiffer one of a small kid rehearsing the various words which have been used to describe the condition of those like him -
“I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn't poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived...then underprivileged. Then they told me underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don't have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary”.
Although I hated the word "governance" when it started to appear in the 1990s, I did understand why some academics felt a new word was needed. A whole new architecture of institutions - Agencies, regulators of privatised public utilities, legally superior (EU/NATO/WTO) and inferior (devolved) bodies; not to mention public procurement and consultation procedures - means that a Government is no longer Master of it's Domain. There are other kids on the block with whom it has to share power

I am aware, however, that there are other, more ideological, reasons for using the term. Recent posts have referred to the role of bodies such as the World Bank and American Think Tanks in weakening the role and power of the State - and the use of the word "governance" has undoubtedly been one the weapons they have used. Take, for example, the famous injunction of the 1991 "Reinventing Government" book to "row - rather than steer"
But I concede that the new institutional complexity does justify the new word. Somewhat reluctantly, therefore, I have accepted that the word is a legitimate one - even if I still shiver when people use it wrongly, when they should have said "government"

But why - as I indicated in the last post - did academics stop using the term some 5-6 years ago? Are they no longer interested? Have other topics become sexier?
Have they exhausted all that can be said on the topic? If so, it would be useful if someone could do a post-mortem article to tell us that was usefully learned from this 25-year episode of scribbling...
Or perhaps this Chinese article - Governance and Good Governance (2018) was that article?
- although I have to say I prefer this 2014 article Making sense of governance

Masochists who really need an answer to such questions are directed to the two definitive Handbooks which were published just as the fashion for the subject was spluttering to an inglorious end. The excerpts give an excellent sense of the field
The Sage Handbook of Governance ; ed M Bevir (2011) 600 pp
The Oxford Handbook of Governance ; ed  David Levi-Faur (2014) 800 pp

Monday, August 17, 2020

Whatever Happened to Governance?

Most people are confused by the word "governance" which crept into our language  some 30 years ago - and which indeed tends now to be used interchangeably with "government".
There is, however, a huge difference in meaning between the 2 words - with "governance" being a dangerous and slippery concept which, significantly perhaps, has now totally disappeared from academic discourseFor me, such sudden academic silences often offer important clues about our political culture - so bear with me while I muse.

An American political scientist by the name of Harlan Cleveland was apparently the first to use the term - as an alternative to the phrase "public administration" - although it was the late 80s before the word came into intensive use. In the mid-1970s, he suggested that:
What the people want is less government and more governance” (1972).
What he meant by governance was the following cluster of concepts.
“The organizations that get things done will no longer be hierarchical pyramids with most of the real control at the top. They will be systems—interlaced webs of tension in which control is loose, power diffused, and centers of decision plural. 
“Decision-making” will become an increasingly intricate process of multilateral brokerage both inside and outside the organization which thinks it has the responsibility for making, or at least announcing, the decision. Because organizations will be horizontal, the way they are governed is likely to be more collegial, consensual, and consultative. The bigger the problems to be tackled, the more real power is diffused and the larger the number of persons who can exercise it—if they work at it” (p. 13). 
He was, in other words, anticipating the "network" approach which I discussed last year in a review of Niall Fergusson's "The Tower and the Square"

It was, however, only in the 1980s that academic began to notice not just privatisation but the increased tendency of governments to "hive off" decision-making to technocratic "agencies" which were given vast managerial authority. These may still have been state bodies but were run increasingly like private companies.
"Partnerships" - with both private companies and other state bodies - were another device in which power came increasingly to appear "shared"

It was such developments that encouraged academics (and the World Bank) to invent the new term "governance" - not just as a neutral term for a new structure but as a celebration of a new concept of "networking" which, in principle, offered greater pluralism of thinking about an issue.....
Indeed, in typically helpful academic fashion, they added an adjective "multi-level" to most discussions to give us the acronym MLG
In a famous phrase, RAW Rhodes called the result "hollowed-out government" - with one of the consequences being that Governments were able to disown unpopular decisions (not least  of the EU) and Governance and Public Administration (2000) sets out that academic's argument
"Whatever happened to Public Administration? - governance, governance everywhere" was a useful paper which tried to explore (in 2004) what lay behind the word's sudden appearance. 

That's the background.
I now have two questions 
- did the new term actually serve any useful purpose?
- why has the term disappeared from academic discourse?

Recommended Reading
Rethinking governance – the centrality of the state in modern society; S Bell and A Hindmoor (2009) A good overview of the concept - putting it firmly in its place
Peter Drucker's 6 sins of PA - a post with a very comprehensive annotated bib on the key readings
Time to Reclaim public services - an update
Governance in the 21st Century (OECD 2001) an interesting book whose summary suggests first that "old forms of governance in both the public and private sectors are becoming increasingly ineffective. Second, the new forms of governance that are likely to be needed over the next few decades will involve a much broader range of active players eg active citizens. Third, and perhaps most importantly, two of the primary attributes of today’s governance systems – the usually fixed and permanent allocations of power that are engraved in the structures and constitutions of many organisations; and, the tendency to vest initiative exclusively in the hands of those in senior positions in the hierarchy – look set to undergo fundamental changes"

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Pandemic as a Warning Shot

The last post ended with a suggestion that how we behave in a crisis is a mark of our character and that all of us should feel under a moral microscope in times of crisis. A post last autumn had made the point that
Nobody seems to want to talk any more about “character” – perhaps it has shades of “self-discipline” and “self-control” when the spirit of the age continues to encourage the self to flourish?So it took some courage for David Brooks to produce in 2015 a book entitled “The Road to Character” consisting of profiles of 8 people whose life demonstrates “character” including Dwight Eisenhower, Samuel Johnson (!), George Marshall (of Marshall Fund fame), St Augustine (!), the american woman behind Roosevelt’s New Deal (Francis Perkins), the charity worker behind “The Catholic Worker” (Dorothy Day) and George Eliot, the British writer.
I idly googled the Ngram user for "character" to discover that useage of the word "character" has fallen in the past decade to almost zero!
No wonder that I followed up that post by wondering whether our social DNA was changing

Some months back I referred to a vimeo encouraging us to use lockdown to conduct more meaningful conversations . It invited us to consider the following questions -
- what we found the most difficult thing about the lockdown?
- how we reacted to it eg fears and hopes?
- what we were ”bringing” to the experience? eg characteristics/strengths
- which of a range of ”spheres” (work, family, friends, personal development, health, finances, wider community) we actually spent time on?

This was part of what was called the Adventus Initiative  which went on to consider, coming out of Covid19,
- what sort of changes (if any) we might we want to make in our priorities?
- for example in the time we devote to each of those spheres?
- what our first action would be?
In many ways, however, this reflects the privileged world which global warming should have us questioning - with both Extinction Rebellion  and Bill McKibben upping the ante

The Canadian blogger Dave Pollard has a great post today which imagines that we are almost at the end of the 21st century - with "civilisation" as we know it today having completely broken down and our lives lived in small communities - generally in primitive form of wars with one another. His "retrospective" covers 11 points - and I have selected the last three to give you a sense of his argument
9 We have had our share of crises, of course. The Great Earthquakes devastated America’s west-coast cities, though by then the big cities were already starting to be depopulated. We’ve had six pandemics that killed about 400 million people between them, though that number is highly imprecise, since the most recent ones, after the production of vaccines ceased in the third decade of the Long Depression, were uncontrolled and our information systems could no longer gather much reliable data on their impact. The latest one was extremely virulent, but since long-distance travel has pretty much ceased, its effects were severe but localized. We figure it’s likely to be like that going forward. The loss of the great forests to fire and insects has caused a whole cascade of ecological crises, as has the death of the oceans that preceded it. That has caused the hot deserts of the tropics and the cold deserts of the boreal areas to expand enormously, and they’re largely uninhabitable now, as are the semi-arid areas of western North America, central and east Asia, and southern Europe that have grown unbearably hot and have long ago run out of water.
10 And water, always our most precious resource, is now probably the biggest factor driving our population down and our continuing migrations to areas where it is still available. It was the cause of the last great wars, in the northern parts of North America and Europe, and across Asia. When the Long Depression eliminated the capacity to create and maintain pipelines to transport water long distances, those wars ended in a whimper. But with the Long Migration, even that water is in danger of running out, especially as the climate collapse worsens.
11 You might be surprised to learn that, despite not having man-made pharmaceuticals, vaccines, or hospitals, our life expectancy is about the same as it was in 2020. We apparently eat much more nutritious food than people did then — less of it, almost entirely plants, and no processed food — and we of necessity exercise more, as we live without most of the electrically-powered equipment that made lives in 2020 dangerously physically inactive. And I’m not sure why, but we seem less obsessed about dying than people back then were. Maybe it’s because we see it when it happens, whereas in 2020 it was always hidden, in institutions, behind closed doors.
The pandemic tells us, surely, that the sort of modern life we had taken so easily for granted is now over....Some aspects of normality may return - but our easy reliance on air travel, mass tourism and imports will surely reduce significantly. 
If we are to be able properly to anticipate and prepare for our new future, we will all need a strong shot of imagination ...

Resource on global warming
What is wrong with us?
Facing Extinction

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Who's having a good Covid19 War?

Covid19 certainly "separates the wheat from the chaff" - it didn't take long, for example, for us to identify the "good" leaders (both political and professional) whose judgements we felt we could trust - for example Ahern and Merkel and the Far-East leaders mentioned in Pankaj Mishra's article in the last post. The 1990s saw an interest in something called "good governance" - which tended to degenerate into a rather mechanistic list of desiderata unable, for example, to throw any light on the odd fact that  two of the countries with the highest Covid19 death rates (US and UK) are also the countries which
- have adversarial,”first past the post”, electoral systems;
- pride themselves on their ”exceptionalism”;
- gave us neoliberalism;
-  have a transactional approach to business which insists on paring costs down to a bare minimum – regardless, as Paul Collier argued recently, of the damage this does to social resilience.

Covid19 offers an opportunity to rethink what became a rather sterile academic debate about what was a pretty vague concept ("good governance") and to craft instead useful guides to the far more important topic of good government
There are, for example, thousands of books about leadership  but not so many about political leadership. It's certainly worth trying to identify what Merkel and Ahern have - which distinguishes them from Trump. Johnson and Bolsonaro - eg calmness under pressure; a search for a diversity of opinions; a refusal to be rushed into decisions; integrity; and effective story-telling are vastly underestimated features of the good leader

Fukuyama is one of many commentators who have identified the issue of Trust as a defining one for government systems in the future.
The crucial determinant in performance will not be the type of regime, but the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government.
All political systems need to delegate discretionary authority to executive branches during times of crisis. No set of preexisting laws or rules can ever anticipate all of the novel and rapidly changing situations that countries will face. The capacity of people at the top, and their judgment, determine whether outcomes are good or bad.
And in making that delegation of authority to the executive, trust is the single most important commodity that will determine the fate of a society. In a democracy no less than in a dictatorship, citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing.
It is a popular misconception that liberal democracies necessarily have weak governments because they have to respect popular choice and legal procedure. All modern governments have developed a powerful executive branch, because no society can survive without one. They need a strong, effective, modern state that can concentrate and deploy power when necessary to protect the community, keep public order, and provide essential public services. A democracy delegates emergency powers to its executive to deal with fast-moving threats.
But willingness to delegate power and its effective use depend on one thing above all, which is trust that the executive will use those powers wisely and effectively. And this is where the U.S. has a big problem right now.
Trust is built on two foundations.
- citizens must believe that their government has the expertise, technical knowledge, capacity, and impartiality to make the best available judgments. Capacity simply has to do with the government having an adequate number of people with the right training and skills to carry out the tasks they are assigned, from local firemen, policemen, and health workers to the government executives making higher-level decisions about issues such as quarantines and bailouts.
- The second foundation is trust in the top end of the hierarchy, which means, in the U.S. system, the president. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt enjoyed high levels of trust during their respective crises. As wartime presidents, this trio succeeded in symbolizing, in their own persons, the national struggle. George W. Bush did initially after September 11, but as his invasion of Iraq soured, citizens began questioning the delegations of authority they had made to him via legislation like the Patriot Act. The United States today faces a crisis of political trust. Trump’s base—the 35–40 percent of the population that will support him no matter what—has been fed a diet of conspiracy stories for the past four years concerning the “deep state,” and taught to distrust expertise that does not actively support the president.
And even the world of political science has woken up to the importance of Trust - with the UK's Economic and  Social Research Council funding a programme on the subject which has so far released such papers as
- "Trust, Mistrust and Distrust"
- "Lesson-Drawing from New Zealand"
- "Nudges against pandemics - on the Swedish experience" ( by Swedish political scientist J Pierre)
For a more critical view of the Swedish left's response see here

But it's all of us who should feel under a moral microscope in times of crisis - not just our leaders. How we behave in a crisis is a mark of our character - which often finds expression in our choice of career. I was intrigued by a recent post which suggested that certain character deficiencies of economists had been exposed during the Covid Crisis

I missed this always-interesting Matt Flinders' article on The Politics of Covid19 - trust, blame and understanding 
The interesting UK Alternative journal commissioned and published this interesting report on how Plymouth activists have responded to the pandemic